Espresso Tasting for Dummies
It's obvious, right? Well, maybe not! What does good espresso taste like? What does an appropriate espresso bean even look like? How long does coffee last? And why does coffee change flavors as it ages? The answers to all of these questions, and more, are coming up!
Good espresso is hard to define. Personal taste preferences for foods and beverages are often quite divergent. And after all, what exactly is wonderful to me, could be downright disgusting to another! Though, what is obvious is that many of us prefer familiar and traditional sweet or savory palette notes in what we eat and drink. We sometimes describe these flavors as "nutty", "chocolatey", "buttery" or similar. These are typical preferences based on rough averages. And these flavors rightly dominate the coffee world. Because these types of flavors appeal to a wide range of taste buds and are easy to augment and combine, most regular and occasional coffee drinkers fall into this category of preference. On the other hand, those little wonder beans can provide sharp, distinct, and strange palette notes that can confuse and mystify even the most seasoned aficionados! Some of these tastes often seem antithetical to coffee itself and can provide a unique and special tasting experience. Non-traditional flavor notes in coffee can range from "flowery" and "fruity" to "salty" and "bitter". Tastes that most drinkers will often associate with simply "bad coffee" may seem "burnt". And this one universally "bad" note is often caused by either over-roasting the bean or over-extracting the brew. It should follow that what is considered "good coffee" is often very much a matter of situation! And that can be complex.
So complex in fact, that many coffee houses and barista services offer an ever-expanding variety of beans to grind, brew methods, and augmentations for their guests. Most of the time, the object of "good coffee" is to provide a fast, warm, familiar boost to energy with minimal effort that can be easily augmented with flavored syrup, milk, or sweeteners. But in more situations, even the "average" coffee drinker is seeking a more deliberate and novel coffee experience that revolves primarily around the bean and how it is brewed. And there we have it: the experience. Is coffee just a caffeinated drink? Or is it something more core to our being and culture as humans? Some may say it is more akin to art than food.
Whether you're into a cup of drip from Mr. Coffee, a pour-over carafe, french press, or you'd prefer a traditional latte pulled through a modern machine, the options for tastes and preparation styles are virtually endless. Today, more preparation styles that many would consider outdated, are accepted as objectively "better" for tasting the bean. And these more time-consuming and hands-on methods are gaining traction. These methods include hand-grinding beans, precision temperature control of the brew water, timed extraction or pouring and much more. The devil is in the details. Most will overlook the vast history and mythology of coffee as they pour some milk and drop a sugar or two into their morning Americano. But more often, we are seeing a recognition of just how interesting coffee can be when we step outside of comfortable tastes and take our time! Just as situation and context dictate what is "good" and what is "bad" in much of greater human morality and history, so does situation dictate what we each want to prepare and taste at any given time. There are times for the fast, simple, familiar flavors. And there are times for expanding our knowledge; challenging ourselves to try something new and finding a new experience. So what is "good coffee"? Well, size it up, and you decide!
Relativism being what it is, the look and shape of a coffee bean can mean just about everything or absolutely nothing about how it tastes! Beans that have divergent phenotypical presentations can often taste very similar. And beans that look identical may taste a world apart. Much of how a bean looks and tastes are dependent upon the climate and growing methods of the farmer responsible for the harvest. Coffee is an exceedingly difficult crop to manage and produce and it is therefore a wonder of our world that there is so much diversity and consistency in this particular plant. After all, there is a huge worldwide demand for both Robusta and Arabica coffee beans and so there is always an incentive to produce quality beans. And so arises the question, what is the best bean for espresso? The answer to that question is again, a simple matter of situation. Some roasters and coffee houses are continually expanding their product offerings to appeal to a wider range of tastes and situations. Yet others are laser-focused on a small, consistent wheelhouse of tried and true beans. In most cases, businesses with a wide range of clientele will do best to choose an Arabica bean (or two) that falls into the "familiar" category since this type of bean is considered to be of higher quality than its cousin Robusta and will appeal to a wider range of palettes and be highly adaptable and augmentable. For this cause, many roasters and brewers will choose a product that contains a "blend" of Arabica beans from multiple harvests or sources which can "flatten" some natural bitterness and "even out" the more desirable tastes from each of the beans included in the blend. On the contrary, many roasters and brewers will opt for a "single source" bean which ensures fidelity of taste as well as supports ethical farming practices. Either choice has its merits and drawbacks and should be considered for anyone, from the daily home barista to multi-national corporate coffee houses. All things considered, the "look" of a coffee bean may not tell you all you need to know. You know the saying, "never judge a bean by its cover!"
Coffee beans are subject to expiry just like many other food products. Though technically coffee beans may never truly spoil unless they are molded or insect-infested, the taste of the same bean over time can change dramatically. Of course, whole-bean coffee will last much longer in a state of freshness than ground coffee. Additionally, some rules of thumb exist for knowing when your freshly roasted coffee will taste best.
The first thing to take into consideration when determining the lifespan of roasted coffee beans is when exactly they were roasted. With this information in mind, take note that all of the possible taste potentials may not be imparted to the coffee if a bean is ground and brewed within several days of roasting. It is important to let the bean rest for up to a week before serving in order to achieve the most consistent and authentic taste profile. On the other hand, beans that have been roasted from one to two months prior are already losing some of their taste profile. And beans that are over 9 months old from the time of roasting are probably stale and will taste drastically different from their fresh counterparts. Beans that have been stored properly in a cool dark place within the original sealed packaging may last as long as a year, however, the window of serviceable beans in a professional setting should be restricted to about 4 to 6 months after the time of roasting. This ensures a consistent and enjoyable taste without sacrificing too much product to waste.
Secondly, the length of roast that has been executed is important in knowing how long your beans may last. Generally speaking, beans roasted lightly will last longer than their "dark" cousins as less carbon dioxide has been produced in the roasting process. While there is no perfect formula for exactly how long your freshly roasted beans can sit on a shelf, armed with these couple of tidbits and your finely tuned taste buds, you can make a more educated decision on when to discard beans. Certainly, it is an exercise in patience and experience to understand that some beans are simply not worth serving to guests or yourself, whether at home or in a more professional context.
So we have established that coffee's flavor profile certainly changes as it ages. But why? And is this really a bad thing? Well, simply put: most coffee, like many consumables, becomes stale. Coffee beans contain natural oils, sugars, and tannins that can simply dry up and disappear. And thus, many bean varieties will lose much of their flavor over time and become flat and boring. In some cases, however, beans are intentionally aged to create a novel coffee-tasting experience. This technique often emulates the conditions that unroasted, green coffee existed in during shipping in ages gone by. Historically, as coffee moved across the world (albeit at much slower speeds than today), different varieties of beans were opined to taste better as they got slightly older. These varieties included very sharp fruity Brazilian beans that would mellow with age, as well as Indian and Sumatran beans that would seem a bit "spicier" after several months at sea. Although "aged coffee" is becoming somewhat of a trend in recent years, deliberately aging coffee beans can be a risky endeavor and is still mostly an occasional novelty rather than a widely accepted and preferred way to prepare and drink our favorite caffeinated beverage. After all, not all whiskies or wines are necessarily better with age, though some can be. And the same goes for coffee.
Now that you have embarked on the journey of the coffee drinker, the points in this short article should help you define what good coffee is to you! From unique taste profiles to the look of a particular bean, there are all sorts of reasons to love and admire, produce and prepare, swill and swig that familiar dark liquid we all know as coffee. Whether it is in the dark corner of your local coffee house reading your favorite book, or in the bright morning sunshine of your own home kitchen, coffee is a timeless tradition that can warm a cold day, cool our mood in the hot summer, celebrate holidays or gatherings and accompany our morning commute. Here's to tasting. And may your cup always be full!